Violent Sport Becomes Pressure Valve for Angry Youth
Retired rugby player Charles Tonga is from an island in the middle of the Pacific that bears the same name. The game's been part of his life for a long time.
"You gotta love it to play it," says Tonga.
Charles was known for his aggressive play. Smashing into guys on the field was a way to vent his anger.
"When I played football I felt like, ‘I can express my way’ and when you're tackling somebody, try to kill somebody so…"
He got into the game because his father made him. They had moved to Australia from his native Tonga when Charles was five. His dad thought rugby would help him adjust.
"At that time I come over I couldn’t speak English. So my English wasn’t that well," he remembers, "I wasn't really confident in myself. (A) couple years later my father wants me to come go play sport where I have to interact with people."
While playing rugby did help Charles come out of his shell, his parents didn't see it. His dad was often at sea as a Merchant Marine and his mom had gone to the U.S. to pursue nursing.
"Raised by my grandmother, 'where's my parents?' So, I had issues already."
Charles was raised as a Christian, but to him God seemed to be more like his own father.
"It seemed like God is so distant," says Tonga. "You've got to be holy. You've got to be good. You've gotta live a good life.’"
With the limited time they did have, his dad would drink.
"Once in my life I think my dad only said to me he loved me, that was because he was drinking. So, (I) grew a chip on my shoulder."
Charles channeled his anger onto the rugby field. For a while it played to his advantage.
"I had the whole world in front of my feet, but this fame and all this stuff, I just didn't know how to take it."
Charles was soon swept up in the culture of professional rugby.
"Drinking (and) women; these are a whole different realm and different culture, where I had to again adjust myself to it."
Like his dad, Charles started drowning his emotions in liquor.
"Drinking and just not stopping and just tipping myself right over, and to the point that I'd just become violent. That's what alcohol and this stuff does to you," Tonga says, "It brings out all the stuff down at the bottom and sorta surfaces it; and the true colors come out, they say."
Several times he was arrested. One night he lost all control.
"We went into a bar and I was looking for trouble. So I just went up to the pool table and just pushed all this guy’s ball and I was just a nuisance. And the guy was just pushing me and saying, 'Hey, what's going on?' And that just sorta snapped me. I just unleashed it, you know, almost killed this guy."
Charles was arrested for assault. The judge had enough of him.
"The judge said to me, ‘Listen, this is not the first time. And this guy almost died. You have to go away and, do some time because next time, you might kill somebody.’”
Alone, discouraged, and facing an end to his rugby career, Charles was forced to deal with what he'd done and who he had become. It was in that quiet space where he says he felt God's presence.
"I could just feel the Holy Spirit; it was just...it was just there ministering to me, looking at my life, what I've done," says Tonga. "And then all of a sudden something said I...and I was going to be all right? That I was going to be all right."
Charles had a friend who visited with him and shared the love of Christ.
"But, I loved his approach in that...in telling me it was all about the love of God; that it's about the relationship, and how much He loved me. That was kinda hard for me to swallow, but, the more time I spent with him, he taught me how to pray. He prayed for me, prayed for my family. And it was like almost Christ in the person through my friend. So that's why it kinda got my attention because he was there, he was consistent."
Charles began a relationship with Christ through his prayers, reading God's Word and choosing better friends. But there was still something left for him to do in order to fully heal from the hurt he felt as a child abandoned by his parents.
"That was the first thing that God told me, 'Charles, you need to forgive your parents.' Forgive them for not being there, for the love that I didn't receive. The person that I became; I blamed them for that but God said, 'you need to put that aside.'"
Charles overcame his anger issues and his dependency on alcohol. He's married and raising a young son with his wife. He's also back on the field as a rugby coach, in his native Tonga, mentoring kids who are much like the person he was before his relationship with Christ.
"The love of Jesus Christ, I could not explain. It's something you cannot fathom," says Tonga, "but yet it's just so amazing and I've come to know who I am in Christ, not what the world, or what my mom have given to me, but He loves me unconditionally. I am somebody, regardless, whatever people say."